Monday, May 4, 2009

Le bonheur

Agnès Varda's third feature, Le bonheur, is a cheerful, sunny, colorful film, a vibrant and ambiguous fable about love, fidelity and the search for happiness, all of it scored with the richly emotional music of Mozart. It is a stunningly provocative film, offering up few answers to the thorny questions it raises about its protagonists and their attempts to create happy lives for themselves. The film opens with an idyllic portrait of married bliss, with real-life couple Jean-Claude and Claire Drouot playing François and Therese. They are happily married and in love, and they have two adorable children (played by the Drouots' real-life kids Olivier and Sandrine). They are an affectionate, playful family, exchanging kisses and hugs frequently, laughing and enjoying sunny Sundays spent in the forest, walking and lounging in the grass and picnicking. Varda's imagery is sensuous and brightly colored, and the riverside tableaux of the opening scenes recall Impressionist landscapes with their blurry, pointillist colors and lush natural scenery. This idyll seems too perfect, too fantastic, as though it had merely been constructed to be broken, and Varda herself skewers this sunlit fantasy when the family returns from their vacation: Jean Renoir's Picnic on the Grass, playing on a TV, suggests that the kind of cheery, uncomplicated romance portrayed here exists primarily in the movies rather than in reality.

And yet for much of the film this idyll is undisturbed. François begins casually flirting with Émilie (Marie-France Boyer), a young woman who works at a telegram office near the shop where he serves as a carpenter. Their flirtation seems innocent, natural, and irresistible, and almost entirely unrelated to François' home life. Soon, he is engaging in an affair while remaining utterly happy at home — if anything, he is even happier, since he now has two women he loves (and who love him). He discovers that for him, love and happiness are "additive," that by being in love with two women he has doubled his joy. The two women are different and offer him different things: Therese is sweet and calm and tender, while Émilie is more vibrant and wild and fun-loving. He shares languid afternoons in the park with the former, passionate dalliances in bed with the latter. And truly, he loves them both, and wouldn't choose one over the other.

This is complex territory, hardly a simple portrayal of marital infidelity but an investigation into the very nature of love, marriage and desire. François wants everything from life, and he doesn't hesitate to reach for it all. He is in many ways selfish and naïve, really believing that he can have everything without hurting anyone else, without disturbing the balance of his life and the lives around him. He is an ambiguous character, an egotist who cares primarily only about his own happiness, his own wants and needs — he takes what he wants with little regard for how it will affect other people. And yet he's also a kind, loving man, with apparent genuine and deep feelings for both women in his life. He is also honest, or tries to be. He tells Émilie all about his wife and family right from the beginning, and makes it clear that he still loves Therese and would never leave her or hurt her. With Therese, of course, he is less honest, and his attempt to finally come clean with her — in an elegant but cruel metaphor, he describes his family as an apple orchard, and says that he has noticed another, equally lovely apple tree outside the orchard — results in tragedy. Still, Varda does not judge, per se, and the film's final act is an effusive montage in which Émilie steps in as the new wife, taking Therese's place without fuss. The images have the same quality of colorful, summery good cheer, though the new context creates an aura of melancholy around the laughter and the play.

Varda is dealing with powerful material here, and placing a real-life family at the center of the narrative only enhances the dissonance within the film. With so much explosive potential, it is critical that she carefully modulates and controls her story. The editing is self-assured and varied, easily shifting from abrupt, rhythmic New Wave montage to a more languid, painterly aesthetic, tracking along natural landscapes or fading between images with solid color fields, like palette cleansers. The Mozart music drives the film, and the images seem to flow with the music, pulsing and breathing, interweaving with the strings. The moment when François first visits Émilie at her apartment (ostensibly to hang some shelves for her) is especially masterful. When Émilie opens the door, she smiles, and Varda begins cutting propulsively between a closeup of her smiling face and a closeup of François, smiling in return. The quick, syncopated pace of the cuts creates a pounding rhythm for the scene, one that is intensified once François steps inside, and Varda begins inserting cutaways to objects strewn around the room, brief glimpses of the apartment's bare interior before returning to the flirtatious dance of the two soon-to-be lovers as they awkwardly step around one another.

In an earlier scene, the development of the first hesitant connections between this pair are formed at a café, where Varda plays with the focus of the image in order to continually take the focus off the couple and then back. In alternating closeups on François and Émilie, the focus shifts into the background, onto a woman being delivered a drink or a girl being greeted by a friend, then shifts back to the subtle exchange of glances and banal small talk between the two new acquaintances. The scene is charged with sexual energy and tension: not just the tension between François and Émilie but the tension between foreground and background, between narrative and digression. As they flirt, the film flirts with leaving them behind, expanding outwards into other stories, other characters beyond the boundaries of this love triangle story. Varda then solidifies the scene's point with cutaways to two one-word signs in quick succession: "temptation" and "mystery."

Varda's style is thus playful and catholic, open to a lively stream of visual information. François' infidelity is later visualized in an extended shot in which Varda pans back and forth across a courtyard where couples are dancing and exchanging partners. In the middle of the pan, the focus blurs, and on opposite sides of the dance floor François dances first with Therese and then with Émilie, then again with his wife, and everyone's happy and smiling and talking contentedly. Later, a mid-afternoon sexual dalliance with Émilie is staged as a montage of disconnected body parts — an eye here, an elbow there — as in Jean-Luc Godard's A Married Woman, released a year before and a possible reference point. Is Varda responding to Godard, countering his portrayal of wifely indiscretion with the fact that husbands, too, can stray? If so, Varda's more philosophical about such things, or at least more open to the possibility that people can be genuinely happy even when they're blithely causing tragedies and wounding the ones they love. Varda avoids the moralist position that infidelity always brings ruin and misery: at least some of the people involved are still happy when the movie's over.

But that gets at one of the most potent and subtle questions asked by the film's title: namely, just whose happiness is at stake here? Certainly, François seems to be mostly concerned with his own happiness, and never thinks to ask what will make either of his women happy. He never suggests that either of them should take other lovers to make them happier, and one senses that would be an unthinkable blow to his ego. He takes it for granted that all he needs to give them is himself, and expects them to pliantly accept, docile and forgiving. He wants his women to be understanding of his needs, to do what is best for his happiness, but to greater or lesser extents, neither of them is happy being one of two women, and they both tell him so, though he disregards their desires. In one case, at least, this is a tragic misstep. François' failure to think about the happiness and desires of others nearly tears his life apart, but ultimately he is able to simply form a new life, to construct a new happiness from the ruins of the old one. Varda closes the film with an image of this happy family walking away from the camera through the gorgeous, gold-tinted woods, but unlike the similar blissful family in the opening, it is not clear whether this is an image of an idyll or a dystopia.


Terrill Welch said...

Hello Ed, Sam Juliano of "Wonders In the Dark" sent me your way when I asked if he had reviewed Varda's Le bonheur. I particularly appreciate the careful analysis you have done of the husband/lover in your review.

warm regards, Terrill Welch

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Terrill, I'm glad you enjoyed the review (and the film!).